|Politics, of course, were the keys to the earlier California Dream. It took the Progressive coalition of labor, reform Democrats and Republicans, farmers, and middle-class professionals to break the power of the railroads and the large landowners over California's economy in the 1910s; without this the easy construction of public roads and mass ownership of private homes would simply not have been possible.
Just as important was the political revolution of 1958. Sick of Republican do-nothing rule, Californians turned en masse to liberal Democrats like Pat Brown and Jesse Unruh to manage and preserve their prosperity, to build the freeways and aqueducts that sustained their suburban dream, to build the schools and colleges that would allow their kids to live the dream as well.
But when this dream ran into trouble in the 1970s, Californians faced a crossroads. Would they redefine the terms of the dream, to be more inclusive, but less focused on freeways, cars, and the single family home? Or would they find ways to artificially prolong the 1950s for as long as possible by protecting the existing homeowners at the expense of those on the outside and those not yet born? As we know, the latter course was chosen. Prop 13 created a homeowners' veto over virtually all of state government, ensuring that California would never be able to do anything with its government that did not meet with the approval of a vocal minority of self-interested homeowners.
The 1978 system was about more than a tax revolt. It was about preserving the 1950s vision of white suburbia from any and all efforts to change it. Although Prop 13 wasn't responsible for NIMBY efforts to kill affordable housing, or new hospitals, or LA subway lines, or urban density, it was done at the same time and for the same reasons.
The consequences are clear to us all. Our health care system is collapsing. College is unaffordable. Our roads are gridlocked and alternatives are only sporadically available. Our climate is changing for the worse - and Republicans are working to prolong all of those problems, and delay their costs for a few decades. California life has become unaffordable - only 60% of Californians own a home, with only 47% of LA County residents being homeowners. Us younger folks don't ever expect to be able to afford a house.
Which brings me to the first of the LA Times articles, "Southern California is Becoming a Tight Fit," which focuses on how multi-family homes like condos and apartments are now being built in larger numbers than single-family homes. Economics are the main force behind this:
Condos and apartments are cheaper to build than houses, largely because less land is required per unit.
They are also cheaper to sell or rent, and with the median price of a single-family residence in Orange County at $724,000, many potential buyers can afford only condos, [Kristine Thalman of the Cal Building Industry Association] said. They also appeal to younger buyers.
"They can live in a high-rise, go downstairs to a bar and restaurant and go to the baseball game," she said
Greater urban density, then, IS the revised California Dream. For a wide spectrum of Californians to ever be able to afford to own their own home - long recognized as one of the keys to economic security in America - then we need more apartments and condos.
The environmental benefits of urban density should be obvious. If you can walk to the shops, to the library, or to public transportation, you're driving less and thereby helping mitigate global warming. For many of us younger Californians, this is a preferred way of living. I much prefer living in an apartment building to the ranch home in Orange County I grew up in, being able to walk to where I need to go instead of having to drive everywhere. The popularity of cities like San Francisco and Oakland and central LA with people my age is proof I'm not just a lone nut.
But in neighborhoods where this new density is being built, like Studio City and Sherman Oaks, residents who still cling to the 20th century version of the California Dream are trying to strangle the new 21st century dream in its infancy:
In Studio City, where mid-century houses and small apartment buildings are being replaced by mega-condo projects, residents are worried that the village-like nature of the community will be squashed under a crush of large new buildings and thousands of new residents....
"We're just trying very hard to preserve some semblance of human-scale life here," said Barbara Burke, who is a vice president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council but who said she was speaking as a homeowner. "The congestion is huge."
The idea that only low-density suburbs provide "human-scale life" is belied by the experiences of cities from Paris to Philadelphia, from Manhattan to Mexico City. But the notion that suburban homeowners have some sort of absolute right to that lifestyle, that they have a political veto over any attempts to shift urban planning in a newer direction, remains strong. Until we can convince these homeowners that they have nothing to fear from the new density, that only with density can any kind of California Dream realistically exist in the 21st century, they're going to continue to fight us, and try and prolong the 1950s as long as they can, no matter the cost.
This LA Times piece raises an important point, however - that greater density in SoCal also tends to bring greater traffic congestion. What is BADLY needed is an alternative to the car - public transportation that serves these new densities, that is quick, efficient, and effective in getting residents where they want or need to go.
And that takes to the other article I wanted to highlight, also from the Times: "LA Could Look to Denver For its Transit Template." The article explains the Denver metro area's 2004 decision to begin the FasTracks project:
In November 2004, voters in the Denver metro region went to the polls and, much to the surprise of some political observers, decided to tax themselves to begin the nation's largest ongoing expansion of mass transit.
If all goes as planned, the Denver region is expected to build 119 miles of light rail and commuter rail by 2016. Among the projects are six new lines from Denver to the suburbs, including one to the airport, the extension of two other light-rail lines and a new rapid transit bus line.
It's a relatively unusual approach. Constrained by a lack of money, most cities build one or maybe two lines at a time. In Denver, they're betting the entire system can be built at once.
Building it all at once is costly, but key - instead of a piecemeal line by line approach, an entire system provides a ready network that will allow residents of new urban density to move around the region with a significantly reduced dependence on the automobile.
Could LA adopt a similar approach? The article notes that in 1980 voters had attempted to do exactly that, voting to tax themselves to build RTD's (now MTA) ambitious rail and subway plan. But this plan immediately ran into resistance from the NIMBY forces, who successfuly asserted a homeowner veto over this farsighted plan. LA's subway to the sea was halted in its tracks by Westside opposition, for example, in the mid-1980s. But that opposition has now disappeared, with Henry Waxman working to lift the federal injunction on tunneling in the area, and cities like Beverly Hills clamoring for a rail line extension to their town.
The problem now facing LA is financial. The article notes that Antonio Villaraigosa has kicked around the idea of bringing a financing measure to voters. But why shouldn't the state be expected to help develop the 21st century California Dream, as it did in the 20th century?
Localities cannot build the infrastructure that the new California Dream needs. The state must help. Democrats understand this, but Republicans actively are fighting it. And that brings us to the ultimate point I wanted to make, to show how this new California Dream is already at the root of our politics and will be for some time.
If we are to build an affordable, economically secure, and prosperous 21st century California Dream, we need new infrastructure investment. We need a robust regional rail system for SoCal. We need expansion of BART and a revived MUNI. We need high speed rail. We need clean buses.
Republicans, however, want none of this. To voters they present a face of defending the homeowner veto, the 1978 system that says the 1950s version of the dream will be maintained forever. But in reality they want something much darker. To California Republicans, their goal is instead a homeowner aristocracy. Where government exists merely to protect those lucky few who own homes and can service that debt - and nobody else. They actively fight efforts to make homeownership affordable, to make transportation more accesible. They want to shackle Californians to their cars to benefit their oil company friends, and lock the majority of Californians out of homeownership out of selfish greed. They use the budget fight to pursue this agenda, seeking to gut environmental legislation as well as public transportation.
As Democrats, as California progressives, it is our task to fight back against this. Our task is to help build the 21st century California Dream - a sustainable society where our agricultural lands are protected so that we can eat locally, where we live in new urban densities dependent on our feet, our bikes, our trains, so that we don't ruin the climate we stayed her to enjoy. A California where people of all classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds have the opportunity to own a home and experience the economic security that offers. This dream suffuses our politics and our personal goals. California must adapt if it is to survive. Our job is to lead that project to fruition.